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Launching tools
There's plenty of possibilities in Windows 95 (+IE4/5) or 98 to create new toolbars (just rightclick your taskbar & find out). You can have 'm at every side, in every size or even floating. Here's some more launching options (be sure to check the startmenu replacements page for some more advanced stuff):
Replace icons with bitmaps
There's a couple of apps available that let you use bitmaps on the desktop to link, instead of icons !! So, no text, every size you want and all sorts of extra features too, like animation, onmouseover effects, sounds and more. They all worked for me in Win 9x/2k/XP.

Desktop Frames (freeware) is most basic, but also most stable. You can use single bitmaps, also .gif (transparancy!). Takes little resources, works great. Made by Something Decent Software.

Want more action ?? Lslive! (by Mercutio, freeware) lets you use animation, sounds and on-mouse-over effect. Version 13c available now. This application was originally meant for Litestep, but works in the explorer shell too. You need to make a copy of the program for every link you make. Not available anywhere right now, but get it here. Note: some big things were being developed, but Mercutio is experiencing some real-life issues; here's hoping he will be back, someday!

[*plastic:] I'd recommend using both applications, for a most stable result, not hogging your recources and with no overkill on animation. Then, there's a third application.

DesktopX (shareware, all versions) is the follow-up of Verona Desktop Enhancer/VDE. You can make (complicated) animations and create sound-, onmouseover- and alpha blendingeffects, even animations using a changing alpha blending. A much easier configuration, more advanced and all. Part of Stardocks "Object Desktop".

By default linking is done to executables (DesktopX does folders and files, and more). For some tricks to get more stuff linked, like "My Computer", check some shortcutting tricks.
Skinnable bars
If you (could) use them, but want your own look, be sure to check out Codename 2 (free, Win 9x/?), a skinnable toolbar, does subsections and a lot more, pretty advanced tool. There's a variety of skins available; the problem and/or challenge is you need to modify them to get to work on your machine. New version is in development, old version you can find here.

This seems a little easier to do with QuickLaunch (free, all versions), by Eurologix. Less skins available, but good options to make your own, personal looking toolbar. Project discontinued, link points to Skinnables orphans page.

A fresh bar, skinnable and with a new approach: "Quick Menu is a free, skinnable, small and easy-to-use launch menu for quick and easy access to the applications you use most often. It sits quietly in the background, waiting for you to activate it by pressing the hotkeys. Upon activation Quick Menu pops up where the mouse cursor happens to be." Freeware :).

"PKMenu is a fully skinnable launcher for Windows XP/2000 and higher. (...) In its default state PKMenu is hidden in the background. Only starter.exe is silently waiting for a change to open the menu when someone clicks on the middle mouse button." Running smooth here, and if you ain't got a middle mouse button, try it from a shortcut. Get it at X21B.com.

Another launcher in the PK series of apps is PKLauncher. It's a small skinnable launcher which list your apps inside a skinnable window.

The features of those are good enough for most people. Still, if you require more, there's a shareware toolbar that does a good job. LaunchKAOS lets you link anything, is fully skinnable and customizable. Quite complicated, and as far as the nags let me see, quite good too.

Another shareware toolbar ($20, Win 9x/2k) is BeDeamon. Now fully skinnable, simple looking, but advanced possibilities. 404 - it's around if you search for it, though, on the shareware sites. We'll leave the link up for a little while...

A poweruser bar: Flarp!Bar (free, all Win versions). Basic skinnability (needs some good skins), but foremost a tool that is meant for keyboard users, and giving some power to as little strokes as possible!
"Mac style"
SideBar (free, Win9x only) is a cool little Maclike toolbar (emulates the "ControlStrip") by the same author as oxygenator. It hides at a side of the screen, and displays a set of system shortcuts when clicked (not configurable).

Two toolbars like Sidebar were available at Penta.com (free, all versions). Current version, 3.+, includes a search item that refers to Google Japan, but that can be changed. As said, it's Japanese, but works on any machine; just drag your .exe into it and a shortcut is made.

And there's ControlBar (free, all Win versions), does the same, but is skinnable and everything's fully configurable. Give this one a shot!

A tabbed toolbar, feature rich, is DragStrip ($20, Win 9x/NT), by Aladdin, a company originating on the Mac (which shows).
Also check out these MacOS X Dock emulations and more Maclike applications plus some more.
Triggered by screenshots of "Longhorn", beta of a new Windows' version, people in advance started recreated the "sidebar" as seen in those. It being a wide extra taskbar on left/right, containing components which you might consider worthwhile to have in view constantly. Typically, that's a clock, calendar, inbox, performance monitors, weather module, mediaplayer etc. Here's some of those: example
"Codename: Dashboard is, an application that resides at the side of your screen, similar to the "Sidebar" component featured in the now-infamous Longhorn video." Advanced, huge, requires .NET framework (huge...) and some more, but brings this future desktop bar with all kinds of information to 98SE and up.

Then, there's SmartBarXP (example of the right). While others work with themes only, this one can follow applied theme and or classic colors too.

And another one is Desktop Sidebar. They've got a lot in common, one thing being they're all free. So you should experiment a little and find out what works best for you.
Notable, in this respect, is BandIt by Holesoft. It's a shareware tool that lets you add about everything to the regular taskbar or a ripped off toolbar. Meaning you can run programs, even skinned, within your toolbar, windows, anything really. A ripped off toolbar to any side, with your own (skinned) programs gives something alike these sidebars, yet highly configurable.
[*plastic:] warning, addictive. When it turned shareware, I stopped using it for a while, but I couldn't live without for instance Switch in my taskbar...
Related, but aiming at a recreation of the BeOS Deskbar is iceFire XL. Beta, but promising to be a cool thing :)!
And some more...
IconDock is a NextStep-like toolbar, much like NextView/Hoverdesk, also shareware. As far as I can tell: it works, probably only in 9x, and it's not being developed anymore, nor you're able to register...
Not so famous, but undeserved: Toolbox v2 (free) by Cylog Software. Looked good before, v2 adds a wealth of display options, with all tiny details covered, and has some great, smooth transparency options that work in all Windows versions, not just in 2k/XP. Tip from crowmag, who brought us up to date, use with Hawkeye Shellinit and ShortPopUp for a full taskbar replacement (besides systray).
And there's Launchmate (free, Win 9x/NT4 (with service pack 3)). Looks and acts like the normal toolbars in Windows, but you can add background bitmaps, customize the buttons, create categories etc etc.

Somewhat in same fashion (thanks Aaron Castle), H-Menu is a fully configurable launcher, yet it remains invisible until activated with the mouse. (...) Animated Toolbars appear on contact with the screenís edge, up to two per side. H-Menu also supports the use of Cascading Menus and Multimedia capabilities. (...) The number of Buttons per Bar and their size can be configured and you can use your own bitmaps as backgrounds. Also you can create many sets of Buttonbars under different user names and groups, then navigate between them with links on each of the Buttonbar groups." Loads of options :).

Then, check out PowerPro (free, Win 9x/2k). This one is about power and ultimate configurability. Can be, can look (skinnable (?), almost completely) like whatever you want - you just need some persistance, not easily configured.

Extending the features of the toolbars you can add by rightclicking your BarLaunch (free, all versions). Will fit in naturally and has loads of options for display (icon size, transparancy, text, placement). Thanks checosx for submitting this one.

For a popup bar with a basic, configurable look, check out HiddenMenu (free, Win 9x/2k). Too much options to mention even, but "when not in use it is invisible, saving your valuable desktop space. When you move your mouse to the bottom right of your screen, it pops up, allowing you to launch your programs, files and shortcuts" - with style, that is. Thanks kendo for submitting this one.

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